That’s me and my son Gabriel on the coast at Courtown in County Wicklow in Ireland in the summer of 1999. He was born in September of ’97 and so wasn’t quite two years old. Despite appearances, I wasn’t about to drown him. He’s 19 now and about 6ft. 2ins tall and completely healthy. He’d have walked into the sea that day with me though without hesitation. Toddlers are poignantly trusting of their parents.
I’m prone to publish old photographs I think because the past so much informs the present. Certainly I believe without memory there’d be no fiction. Most of the places I write about possess an emotional weight they wouldn’t without the personal experiences undergone there. There’s only one location in my books – I won’t say which – I’ve never been to in my life. I wanted to see if I could create a landscape of imagination based only on popular perception of the place. But most of them I’ve lived in and some of them I really love.
I located Lavinia Mallory’s house in Cleaver Square in Kennington where in the mid-1980s, the Prince of Wales pub was my local. The houses in the square are austere, Georgian and very grand. Some of the more dissolute residents drank (heavily) in those days in the pub. Though none of them were as dissolute as Mrs Mallory would be when I came years later to write The Magdalena Curse.
My fey theologian Jacob Prior in The Lazarus Prophecy inhabits my old flat near the Oval cricket ground. Alice Lange in Dark Resurrection recovers her psychic gift in Shaftesbury, where I lived when I wrote The Colony. The piss-haunted lift that delivers Paul Seaton home in The House of Lost Souls would take me to my not-so-new 7th-floor abode about six months after this picture was taken. I make my stories up, but they’re rooted in the reality of recollection and a strong sense of place is extremely important to them. My recurring character Ruthie Gillespie lives in Ventnor on the Isle of Wight because it’s my favourite place in the world. Without the ties that bind, I’d live there myself.
Given that I spent a year living and working in Dublin Bay, I haven’t done much yet with Ireland. Although Ireland does feature quite importantly in Dark Echo. I was based in Bray, which has become a much more modish locale in recent years than it was when I was there. My arrival occurred in December and I remember the heavy scent of coal fires in the night air from the houses walking the streets. They were quiet streets and the nights were thickly dark. And Bray’s turn will surely come. It’s just a matter of time.
This is the opening page of my debut novel, written in 1984 and subsequently forgotten about for at least the last 30 years. Allison & Busby were going to publish it. Then Duckworth were going to publish it, but in the event neither of them did. I decided after that disappointment to concentrate on my career in journalism and wouldn’t actually have any fiction published until 17 years after completing this manuscript. Reality intervened. As John Lennon said, Life is what happens when we’re busy making other plans. Mine included launching magazines and becoming a father. Then one day in 1998 I was in Archbishop’s Park in Lambeth playing with my infant son and the plot of a novel slipped into my mind. It was like getting a postcard from someone I’d forgotten I knew. I waited until Gabriel had tired of the swing and roundabout and lifted him onto my shoulders for the short journey home and while he had his nap, began it.
When I exhumed this the other day, two things struck me about it. The first was that it’s written in the first-person. Well, most first novels are autobiographical, so that’s really no surprise. And there’s a typo 14 lines in, where ‘resident’ singular should be ‘residents’ plural. Very careless. My Royal upright typewriter was already antique when I bought it from a mate for £20. I can still recall the staccato rhythm of its keys. I can’t really recall this story at all, and though it might prove a masochistic exercise, think I’ll give it a read. Whitstable would be a very swish setting for a story these days. It wasn’t in the 1970s when I lived there as a student. Though I did used to pass Wavecrest resident and Hammer Studios film star Peter Cushing, taking his constitutional, most days on my morning run. That was always slightly surreal. Whitstable and film stars definitely didn’t mix. Don’t remember him appearing in this, probably for that reason.
On the subject of present rather than past projects, I’m currently working on both a stand-alone novel and a fourth Jericho Society themed novella. There’s a slight change of tone with the novel that I hope increases the ambient level of menace quite substantially. Without going into technical detail, it’s going to be a case of less is more. If you don’t think you’re continuously evolving as a novelist I don’t think there’s really any point. With paranormal fiction, a writer can go from the faintest whiff of something, to the most corrupt stench. There’s plenty of leeway but to my mind, the half-imagined hint is always more disturbing. Going forward, there’s going to be considerably more ambiguity and uncertainty. The ground won’t feel quite so solid under your feet. That’s the intention, anyway.
The technically-minded among you might be interested to know that by 1998 the Royal upright had gone, replaced by an AppleMac LC 475 desktop computer I was only ever capable of using as a ludicrously expensive word processor. But it did the job.
Found this old photograph yesterday. It was taken in the offices of the Hackney Gazette in 1981 when I was 24 years old and reporting mostly on crime. The jacket and tie were from Flip in Covent Garden and though my student son now regards this look as flat-out hilarious, it was quite fashionable back then. Seeing this picture reminded me of just what a great time I had in London in this decade – though I wasn’t to know that when it was taken.
I revisited this era when I wrote The House of Lost Souls. In the part of the novel set in 1985, I basically gave my protagonist Paul Seaton my idyllic London life. He’s working at the Gazette when he pulls a sickie to pay his first disastrous visit to the Fischer House in Brightstone Forest on the Isle of Wight. The experience results in a breakdown. His wonderfully hedonistic world implodes. None of that happened in reality to me, but that novel remains the most autobiographical I’ve written.
It emerged out of a conversation I had about 12 years ago in a Blackfriars pub with Peter Doig – a friend I first met the year this photo was taken. We were reminiscing about London in the eighties and the fantastic time our group had then. He suggested I document the period in a novel. I said that some very good novels about that decade had already been published, written by some rather distinguished authors. ‘But their experience wasn’t ours,’ Peter said. I had to agree with him. Anyway, the seed was sown. THOLS isn’t about the eighties, but the section of it set then is exactly how I remember it.
The really crucial part of THOLS is set 90 years ago, in 1927. Obviously I couldn’t recall that year from life. But it was the most enjoyable part of the book to write because it was the place in the story where my imagination had most to come into play. I enjoyed seeing the world then through the eyes of Pandora Gibson-Hoare so much that I knew I’d be obliged to repeat the trick. And to go back further, which I subsequently did. I think describing Victorian London seen through the eyes of Daniel Barry in The Lazarus Prophecy the most satisfying spell of writing I’ve so far enjoyed.
A word about some of the details in the photo. You might think there should be an ashtray smouldering atmospherically on a reporter’s desk, but there isn’t, because I never smoked. That ancient typewriter is the reason I still bash a computer keyboard unnecessarily hard. No computer (desktop or otherwise); no mobile phone and I think even fax machines had yet to be invented. How did we manage? We managed pretty well, two editions a week and 200, 000 copies-plus paid-for circulation. And every single day at work was fractious, loud, surprising fun. The world was more carefree then – and that’s not a view coloured by nostalgia. It really was.